Welcome to the weekly round-up of what the BookNerd is reading and how many points I scored (or lost) in Library Chicken. To recap, you get a point for returning a library book that you’ve read, you lose a point for returning a book unread, and while returning a book past the due date is technically legal, you do lose half a point. If you want to play along, leave your score in the comments!
Lots of good books this week! When people ask how I have the time to read as many books as I do, I tell them the truth: I do as little housework as possible. This gets a polite chuckle, at least until they actually come over to my house, whereupon their eyes get very big and All Becomes Clear. My kitchen has reached a critical level of grime, however, so I’ve begun Taking Steps. SPOILER ALERT: next week’s Library Chicken Update may be considerably shorter.
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen
Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson
We’re starting with Little Women in Middle School Lit so I picked up a Louisa May biography which sent me down a rabbit hole of all the Alcott and Alcott-adjacent books I’ve added to my to-read (or reread) list over the years. The Reisen bio is detailed and complete, with new research, and a great read for anyone interested in LMA. I enjoy reading a couple of competing bios when I can: even biographers and historians who work hard to be unbiased necessarily shape their narrative with what they choose to include and exclude, and how they comment on and interpret their materials. In these three books, you can see that in the various treatments of Bronson Alcott, famous friend to Emerson and Thoreau, and famously poor provider for his family. Matteson, while acknowledging Bronson’s flaws, is anxious to present him in the best light possible (as is Reisen, to a somewhat lesser extent). LaPlante, refreshingly, is having None Of That, and while her bio is less detailed than the others, I enjoyed her constant irritation with Bronson (who really needs to be thwacked repeatedly with a large stick) and her shift of focus to Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother (and LaPlante’s several-times-great-aunt).
(LC Score: +3)
An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
I’m slowly rereading my way through my shelves of children’s literature and conveniently, it’s time for some more Alcott (though I don’t think I’ll be revisiting Little Men or Jo’s Boys any time soon). This is one I hadn’t remembered well, perhaps because our heroine, a country girl sent to stay with a friend’s wealthy but discontented family, is a bit irritating, what with being so sweet and good all the time. The narrative perks up when it jumps forward a few years to show her as a young woman attempting to support herself in the city, but my favorite part of the book was an unexpected cameo from America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman, when the grandmother told a tale of meeting the famous Lafayette in her youth (an anecdote based on LMA’s own family history).
(LC Score: 0, off my own shelves)
Fanshawe by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Did you know that Nathaniel Hawthorne was LMA’s neighbor in Concord? I remember Emerson and Thoreau, but somehow I always forget about Hawthorne. My daughter will be reading The Scarlet Letter this year, so it seemed like a good time to pick up the Library of America edition of Hawthorne’s novels. I hadn’t even heard of Fanshawe, which I guess is unsurprising since Hawthorne himself did everything he could to suppress his first published novel, including destroying all the copies he could get his hands on. It turns out to be a short novel about a Helpless Victim Girl falling prey to a bad guy before being rescued in the nick of time by a Heroic Virtuous Student, who then virtuously turns away from his hopeless love of the girl to succeed in his goal of dying young from too much studying. (I don’t know that it deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth, but I also wouldn’t go around recommending it to people.) Meanwhile, I hadn’t read The Scarlet Letter since 9th grade, when it was the source of much pain and suffering. Several decades later, I was surprised by how dramatic it was and I enjoyed it more than I expected. As a bonus, Hawthorne throws in a totally unnecessary but still awesome dig at Bronson Alcott in the Custom House opening.
(LC Score: 0, still working on the Library of America anthology)
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan
Time for a cozy mystery set in a bookstore! Except that this novel is most emphatically not that! I’m not sure where I got the idea that this would be a pleasant little murder mystery—perhaps I just associate bookstores with coziness?—but this book, about a bookstore employee who discovers a suicide in the store after closing time, is structured more like a thriller. Our heroine is the deeply damaged survivor of a horrific tragedy and this new death will lead her back to that childhood trauma. (I was reminded a bit of P.J. Tracy’s Monkeewrench.) A good read and books do feature prominently, but perhaps not exactly what I was looking for when I checked it out.
(LC Score: +1)
The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey
Alan Grant #6. I loved the beginning of this mystery, where Grant, suffering from PTSD-induced claustrophobia, goes to Scotland to recover, but I thought things got a bit heavy-handed with Tey’s introduction of an ignorant American who must be lectured at about the awesomeness of the British titled classes and the inherent classlessness of British life—none of which, by the way, has anything to do with the plot. (This novel was discovered in Tey’s papers after her death, leaving me to wonder if that bit would have been edited out had she lived to see it through publication.) Still, we do get a wonderful tale about a lost Arabian city. Overall, a nice send-off for Inspector Grant.
(LC Score: +1)
Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran
Claire DeWitt #2. I am really enjoying the Zen-like mystery-solving abilities of screwed-up private investigator DeWitt and this mystery, involving the death of her musician ex-boyfriend, is a worthy sequel to the first book. Unfortunately, it ends with a cliffhanger and three years later (Bohemian Highway was published in 2014) there is no follow-up in sight.
(LC Score: +1)
Come Closer by Sara Gran
So if she’s not going to give me a Claire DeWitt, I’ll read another one of Gran’s books! That’ll show her! This one, her second book, is a horror novella about a woman being possessed by a demon. Good but super-creepy.
(LC Score: +1)
Sleep and His Brother by Peter Dickinson
James Pibble #4. Inspector Pibble is now an ex-inspector, having been fired from the force (perhaps as a result of the events of The Sinful Stones, though we don’t learn the details). At loose ends, he starts investigating a home for intellectually and physically disabled children, all suffering from a (fictional) congenital disorder. As with The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest (though on a different topic), this seems like a scenario fraught with offensive possibilities, and similar to that first book, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. That said, the plot quickly takes an unexpected twist into the paranormal, and as usual, Dickinson has created a bizarre but fascinating read.
(LC Score: +1)
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, art by Brian Stelfreeze
This Week in Comics: You know I love Coates and Stelfreeze’s artwork here is simply gorgeous, but I think Marvel missed an opportunity with this collection. As a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m more than ready to read some Black Panther as I eagerly await the movie (have you guys seen the trailer?!? IT LOOKS SO AWESOME), but as a newbie to the comics world, I was totally lost after being dropped right in the middle of a long-term ongoing storyline. I needed an issue #0 with the backstory or something. Despite that, it was well worth reading for the spectacular visuals, and I’ll keep going with the series in the hope that I’ll catch up sooner or later.
(LC Score: +1)
The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
I was 7 years old when Star Wars came out. I first heard of the movie from an excited friend (also a 7-year-old girl) telling me all about this great princess who was sarcastic and funny (“This is some rescue!”) and strong enough to save the heroes who were trying to save her. I am so grateful that I was able to grow up with Princess Leia as one of my feminist icons—it’s no exaggeration to say that she changed my conception of what women (even princesses!) could be, and thus changed my world. It’s a tragedy that we no longer have Carrie Fisher here with us (goodness knows we need her) but it seems fitting that her final gift to us was this memoir. Now, okay, most of it is taken up with her secret affair with Harrison Ford (speaking of things that would have totally blown my 7-year-old mind) and while I’m as much of a sucker for celebrity gossip as anyone else, honestly, that doesn’t rank very high on my list of things I’d like to know about Carrie Fisher’s Star Wars experience. What I did learn was how talented a writer she was, even at age 19, even in her private I’m-desperately-in-love-and-can’t-think-of-anything-else journal entries. And how brave she was to share her self-absorbed uncertain teenage self with the world. I never dated anyone who looks like Han Solo, but I could relate to that all-encompassing hopeless first love (and believe me, NO ONE is ever going to see those diary entries). This is a must read for all us old-school Leia-wanna-be fangirls, and anyone else who appreciates Fisher’s smart, snarky, don’t-give-a-damn style. General Leia will be missed. Sniff.
(LC Score: +1)
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
This science fiction thriller has gotten great reviews—plus it was personally recommended by one of my best friends—but when it was finally my turn in the hold queue I found that I wasn’t in the mood to be thrilled. I’ll wait a bit and then try again. RETURNED UNREAD.
(LC Score: -1)
Library Chicken Score for 8/29/17: 9
Running Score: 96
On the to-read/still-reading stack for next week:
The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (English country house novel: yes, please)
The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall (more Alcott-adjacent bios)
The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (I love it when the book I just heard about on NPR shows up on the new release shelf)
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (great authors, great title)